Democracy, irresponsibility, and dictatorship. By Kirubeal Bekele
This is too huge a concept to discuss and fully cover in this painfully short article. But we can summarize the dynamics between democracy, irresponsibility, and dictatorship in more concrete and palatable forms in order to meet our day to day challenges of building a free society in Ethiopia. As all of these factors are contributing to an immense confusion, finding a short and concrete approach to solving our inherent problems of democracy and peace is a must-do critical homework for all forces of democracy involved in Ethiopian politics today.
I have a deep suspicion and even fear that most of us may not really know what we actually want when we say we are for democracy. Democracy is not a form of government where everyone does whatever he or she wants. This may be true to some extent in our personal lives. Even this one has so many restrictions that are out of our control that force us to change course against our will. Imagine the complexity we are facing when we want to implement democracy to our society at large with more than eighty ethnic groups and different variety of political spectrums.
This makes the issue of responsibility an absolute requirement to bring real democracy anywhere including in Ethiopia. To be responsible means to do or not to do several things based on the objective conditions prevailing at the time. For instance, to completely give up our rights in exchange for security and economic prosperity is a lack of responsibility. To completely trust anyone individual or party is not only being naïve but it is also becoming irresponsible. On the contrary, being suspicious and totally untrusting of all politicians and their efforts is another side of reflecting our lack of responsibility. To not have a healthy balance of reality and idealism is another form of irresponsibility. Seeking a democracy that is too idealistic to be true is a recipe for disaster. It certainly leads to anarchy. And you know who comes in when anarchy is created. The problem solvers and the risk takers will show up. These are mostly, if not all, the future dictators.
Another irresponsible act that hutches dictators is intolerance. We don’t have to tolerate the intolerable but we should tolerate others even if we don’t agree with them. We should be able to disagree with them without being nasty and disagreeable. If we don’t, we are, deliberately or unconsciously, sabotaging our efforts to build a democracy. That is why irresponsible people can never attain or build a democracy. In fact, the fate of such a society is dictatorship under a few individuals or usually under a single dictator. So it is very crucial that we actually know what we want and know how to achieve it, if we don’t want to fail again after paying the enormous price needed to change a ruthless dictator such as Zenawi and his breed.
A case in point is Egypt and now Libya. In Egypt, the military is maneuvering to steal power from the revolution that brought down Mubarak. In Libya, as the rebels are nearing complete victory over Gaddafi, they have started infighting between themselves that may lead to a new crisis. This probably requires a new dictator to solve it unless the Libyan rebels assume responsibility soon and avert the crisis. Otherwise, Egypt and Libya are on their way to succumbing into the hands of new dictators that may step in as problem solvers and risk takers that dictators usually are when they first come on the scene. If they do, all that sacrifice we witnessed in living color in front of our television screens will be in vain. Can you imagine all that blood spilt for nothing?
For those of us who are lucky enough to live in the United States, Europe, or in a democracy in general, we have had the best opportunity to see democracy in action. Here in North America, there is a concept called “separation of powers”. This is the crux of the American democracy. It is the engine of the American government and all its institutions. The American government structures are designed in such a way that the political system in no way or form lets power to concentrate in one or a few individuals. Power, by its nature, has one unique trait. Like a magnet, it has this innate nature to always gravitate towards few people and eventually to one person. This is not waxing philosophy or splitting hairs. We have all witnessed this power dynamics in Ethiopia and in almost all these non-democratic banana republics. This has always been the case in all of the pre-democratic human history as well as in the animal kingdom. Isn’t that an amazing thought? A real democratic so ciety is the only human society on earth. If it is not a democracy, it is just another version of the animal kingdom just like the monkey, or the lion or the elephant society.
The Derg was a military junta consisting of 120 people when it started. After a while, power began to concentrate in a few individuals like Mengistu, Teferi Benti, Aman Andom, and others until it finally and totally fell in the hands of Mengistu. This of course led to a ruthless dictatorship by one man where everything was decided by Mengistu . It is the same story with Meles Zenawi. He concentrated power in his hands through a gradual process of purging and eliminating his opponents within TPLF.
In both cases, there is no separation of powers or if there is, it is a fake one. Ethiopia and other dictatorships have a pseudo-parliament and a fake judiciary system. But they are not independent powers. They are just tools or burecratic structures to implement the will of the dictator in whose hands power is concentrated. In both of these dictatorships, the separation of power structures are there but the substance of real separation of powers is absent. In other words, they are structures that add more power to the dictator let alone taking most or even some of the power from the dictator.
Separation of powers in the United States is expressed in the three branches of governments. They are the US house representatives and the US senate, the Judiciary, and the Executive body which is the presidency and the white house. Not one branch has any right to make an important decision pertaining to the United States all by itself except the Presidency in rare cases. For example, the President’s right to declare war unilaterally without consulting the other branches of power in America. A good example is the Bush Administration unilateral declaration of war in Afghanistan and Iraq . The consequences of these wars are becoming clearer now as a result of which the Presidential power to declare war unilaterally is becoming more controversial in the United States.
It is the spread of this kind of irresponsibility and greed that is currently contributing to the erosion of democracy in America. When the political parties and those who are in position s of power start to make decisions based on their own interests rather than the common interests of the country, it erodes democracy. And thereby weakening the separation of powers that eventually may lead to a dictatorship. This brings me to my next critical point that I have been driving my nail into up to now.
Unless each and every citizen is responsible, democracy won’t work. If both the electorate as well those who are elected do not act in a responsible fashion, not only democracy won’t work but it will also eventually lead to a dictatorship. The million dollar question is how. Irresponsibility in a democracy creates a serious crisis to the point of making the system dysfunctional leading it to bankruptcy, economic as well as political. This will give an opportunity for someone or a few people to come up with a solution that can temporarily fix the crisis. But there is a price to pay. Now people have to give up their rights willingly or reluctantly for the relief they have gotten from one or a few individuals. The solution to the crisis should have come, no matter how long it takes, from those power structures designed according to the principle of the separation of powers.
Mengistu become an absolute dictator neither by wisdom nor by talent. He didn’t have either. He was the only one determined and fearless when the rest of the Derg members were contemplating and wavering to remove Emperor Haile Selassie. Everyone at the time wanted the emperor to go but Mengistu was the only one courageous enough at the time to lead that daunting task of removing Haile Selassie. Mengistu stepped up to the challenge and this of course solved the crisis. And power went right into his hands and kept it for another gruesome and bloody seventeen years. Meles has done the same thing. He stepped up to the challenge of solving problems in TPLF opening the door for power to gravitate towards himself. The rank and file members irresponsibly started looking up to him for a solution thereby exchanging security and dependence on Zenawi for a democracy and responsibility of the rank and file members.
Hard times and a great crisis like the one Ethiopia and America are having today will force people to look for one man or party to help them out of the crisis. This is the best opportunity for a dictator to show up with a temporary solution. How many of you know how Hitler came to power? Hitler boosted the German economy like no other. And people including his party members gave up their rights, willingly or reluctantly, in exchange for security and a good economy. The German nation became irresponsible as a country for giving up all that power in return for a prosperous economy. And you know what happened next. The Second World War began and six million Jews were executed.
This phenomenon works even in the United States. When any president of the United States makes the economy work, that person has a good chance of being reelected. It does not matter how good this person is as a president, he will never be elected more than twice . And this is a very efficient mechanism to stop people’s tendency to give up their rights in exchange for a good and vibrant economy. This is how responsible citizens act in a democracy that works.
Have you seen any issue being decided quickly in the American politics? The answer is no. You know why? An immediate political decision is usually made by a dictator or, if it is in a democracy, by elected members who show a lack of responsibility. If a democracy has to work, each and every issue has to be dealt as long as necessary without resorting to a never-ending gridlock. Nobody likes gridlock. Believe me, it is a good thing unless it is overdone like the one we are seeing now in the US congress where tolerance is so low and irresponsibility is running too high to the point where everything has become controversial. This is the other extreme of eroding democracy by irresponsibility and intolerance that may lead to anarchy and finally to dictatorship.
You know a dictator does not just drop down from the sky. Leave it or take it, we are the ones who are responsible for creating these suckers. Primarily, before an individual becomes a dictator, he was a problem solver and a risk taker. In addition, such a potential dictator has a tremendous courage to take the necessary risk and do the will of the people though temporarily. Naturally people are attracted to such a person. And this is how people are sucked into his grip and eventually lose all their rights for the temporary solution he may have brought to their desires and challenges.
So the take home message is this. Yes, we want our problems solved. Sure, we want solutions to our crisis. But we want it done in such a way that we are responsible like a citizen so as not to lose our democratic rights in exchange for security and economic well being. That is why the Separation of powers in America makes sure that a dictator does not emerge in two ways. First of all, people representatives including the president are elected. And nothing can be decided by the president alone no matter how good he is. Second, any American president can serve only two terms even if he has the ability and the leadership to bring 0% unemployment in the United States. This is how a real democracy functions. A real democracy never lets power to concentrate in one man or a single body of government while at the same time making sure the system functions properly no matter how slowly. A reasonable degree of political gridlock is a good thing to let democracy work as it should. The workings of a democracy should never be compromised by a political expediency either. This is the surest way to prevent democracy turning into a dictatorship. And true separation of powers is the magic principle that protects and safeguards a genuine democracy.
We Ethiopians have got problems. A lot of problems. We are seeking solutions. We need relief as soon as possible. If someone or some party comes along to solve our problems, I am sure we will embrace this power. Sure, we will have our problems solved temporarily. But at what price? By giving our rights as citizens? If we do, we ourselves will create another dictator that will eventually destroy all the gains when he becomes busy to protect his power. And he will bring us back to where we started from adding another round of problems and crisis that are waiting for a new potential dictator to solve. And the cycle of misery continues. So we should very carefully analyze the dynamics that exists between democracy, irresponsibility, and dictatorship.
For embracing anybody, be it a party or an individual, problem solving should not be the only criteria we should implement. We should also consider how these problems are solved. That is why in politics, I always say we deserve what we get. I am afraid this may also be true in everything else. Therefore, we should very carefully analyze the magic formula of the separation of powers and its impact on the dynamics between democracy, irresponsibility, and dictatorship. If not, we are on our way to create a new dictatorship as we have always done. Do you want another sucker after twenty years of abuse, political terror and absolute dictatorship? If your answer is no way Hosse, then let us be responsible. Let us be wise and careful in exercising our rights. Democracy without responsibility will either directly or indirectly via anarchy leads to dictatorship. Never, never and never forget responsibility in your quest for democracy in Ethiopia. Never!
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org